Jefferson County jury awards $12.5 million to railroad worker who lost leg

2014-01-29T10:45:00Z 2014-04-16T16:38:20Z Jefferson County jury awards $12.5 million to railroad worker who lost legBy Kim Bell kbell@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8115 stltoday.com

HILLSBORO  • A Jefferson County jury has awarded $12.5 million to a railroad worker whose right leg was amputated after being run over by a train.

Michael Bolen, 51, of Jackson, Mo., was hurt in May 2012 as he was directing trains in a rail yard in Crystal City. He claims he was walking along the track and tripped over a large rock that was left in the rail yard.

He fell onto the tracks and both legs were run over by a slow-moving train. His right leg was crushed and, after he was taken to Barnes Jewish Hospital by medical helicopter, it was amputated below the knee. He also lost part of the heel on his left foot.

Nelson G. Wolff, the attorney for Bolen, said this may be the largest personal-injury verdict in the history of Jefferson County. The trial before Circuit Judge Nathan Stewart began Jan. 21 and wrapped up on Tuesday evening, with the jury's unanimous verdict. The jury deliberated about two hours. 

Harlan Harla, one of the attorneys representing the railroad, declined to discuss the case Wednesday morning. He referred questions to a BNSF spokesman, Andy Williams.

In an email, Williams said, "BNSF sympathizes with the injury Mr. Bolen suffered. However, BNSF continues to believe that its workplace, equipment, employees or supervisors did nothing to contribute to Mr. Bolen's injury."

Wolff said Bolen was a conductor/switchman for BNSF Railway. He had worked for the company about eight years and was earning about $80,000 a year.

Wolff said that the train company was negligent in having a rocky area where workers walked. The boulder was about 9 inches by 5 inches. The railroad had recently resurfaced the track, bringing in rock from a quarry, but the rock was supposed to be smaller than the one Bolen tripped over, Wolff said.

The suit was brought under the Federal Employers Liability Act. Bolen sought money for medical treatment he will need in the future, lost wages, pain and disfigurement. The damages sought were to compensate Bolen for his injury and not punish the railroad, because federal law says punitive damages aren't allowed, Wolff said.

After the accident, Bolen underwent numerous surgeries and had to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. He applied for many jobs, but Wolff claims all he could get was an $8-an-hour job at a car wash in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

The railroad offered to settle the case before trial for $400,000, Wolff said. Wolff had asked the jury to award his client a minimum of $10.5 million. Bolen's case included testimony from an economist who calculated lost earnings. Bolen had been a Marine before the railroad job, and he was in good shape and enjoyed hiking in state parks before his injury, Wolff said.

Wolff said Bolen had to show negligence or that the working conditions were unsafe. According to Wolff, the railroad indicated that Bolen wasn't walking along the tracks but instead was riding on a rail car and had lied about what happened. But Wolff said an audio recording of dispatchers at the rail yard indicated that Bolen had been walking before the accident.

Williams, the railroad spokesman, said BNSF disputes Bolen's version of events.

"The facts shown to the jury were that there is no physical way the accident could have happened the way Mr. Bolen and his lawyers suggested," Williams said in the emailed statement.

Williams declined to answer any other questions about the case or say if the company plans to appeal.

The railroad hired mechanical engineers, Wolff said, to argue that the forces involved were inconsistent with tripping and falling and getting caught under a train. Another engineer hired by BNSF used computer animation to argue that it couldn't have happened the way Bolen described, Wolff said. Another witness for the defense said Bolen could get a better-paying job than the car wash.

There was no video of the accident; the only camera in the area was on the front of a locomotive facing the other direction, Wolff said.

A member of the jury, Cecilia Patriarca, of Fenton, said the railroad tried but did not convince the jury that the accident happened differently. 

"(The railroad) just didn't prove their case very well," she said. "We felt that he had fallen the way he said he had fallen."

Kim Bell covers breaking news for www.STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at 314-340-8115 or kbell@post-dispatch.com

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